In a previous post, I suggested that paladins in D&D might be more interesting to play if we allowed them to follow more realistic ethical theories, such as utilitarianism or virtue ethics. Today, I want to take that point further by looking at the approach that most people take when playing a paladin and taking it in another direction.
The view is called Divine Command Theory, and it’s an approach to morality that basically says that we should do whatever God or gods demand. Following the Ten Commandments could be seen as Divine Command Theory; if the commandment says “Do Not Steal” then you must not steal. The reasons people might follow such a commandment vary, of course. Some might be trying to avoid punishment, while others want the reward of being favored. Still others may do it simply because God commands it, and they serve God. Most likely, Divine Command Theory is basically what D&D creators like Gygax or Arneson had in mind with the paladin originally. Paladins must follow the divine will of the gods, and there are real consequences if they don’t, such as loss of favor and the powers that come with it!
But what if we pushed this view a bit, in light of the fact that there are many gods recognized in D&D? I still have the original Deities and Demigods book, which includes stats on gods from Moorcock’s Elric novels, and even Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. If paladins are knights in the service of gods, why couldn’t they follow any of the gods, rather than being limited to a lawful good ethos? Imagine if my paladin worshipped Azathoth, which the book explains as a being the size of a star, and a god who drives followers insane? Now, I am an insane paladin, capable of doing whatever random things my capricious nature leads me to do at a given moment. In this case, I would become a Fallen Paladin if my character started to make act rationally, since I am no longer following the path of chaos and madness.
That’s an extreme example, and might actually be difficult to play for more than one, rather humorous, session. But my point is that there are many gods available, each with different goals and thus different Commandments that their paladins would have to follow. Later editions of D&D tried to capture this a bit by having evil paladins, or by giving clerics different domains based on the gods they followed. What I am suggesting would simply apply the same principle to paladins, and the player and DM would have to decide what Divine Commandments the paladin must follow.
Looking at some of the other gods in Deities and Demigods (D&D…get it?), we have a wide range of possibilities. There are gods from the Chinese and Indian Mythos, for example. Apparently, the world of ‘Oerth’ (names in the 70s weren’t so clever!) had the same religions our history has. In any case, a paladin following one of these deities could presumably be a Taoist or Buddhist, focusing more on harmony and balance than ‘good’ in the European sense. This might make her more like a druid, focusing on neutrality and the forces of yin and yang.
There are also plenty of non-human gods in the book, despite the fact that early editions did not allow non-humans to play paladins. They would still have gods, though, and surely some of them would become holy warriors. Baldur’s Gate 2 explored this idea with the character of Mazzy, who was technically a fighter, but had paladin-like abilities from her god, Arvoreen (the Halfling god of war…wait, there’s a Halfling god of war??). Following the commandments of non-human gods could lead to interesting ideas. Perhaps Dwarven gods have a very different sense of right and wrong than human gods would. Something about beards and mining and prohibitions against dwarf throwing.
The book also details Native American mythological figures, but interestingly none of the Central American gods are Lawful Good, and only one of the “American Indian” gods is. The heroes in these sections sometimes are, which I guess means that Hiawatha, who is listed as being a paladin, follows the Thunder Spirit, Heng, the only Lawful Good god on the continent! But if we loosen the restrictions on paladins, we could imagine jaguar paladins, who embrace the idea of being stealthy and cunning in the service of their gods.
Whatever the case, Divine Command Theory would actually allow a much broader variety than we typically assume, since most of us come from a Judeo-Christian background. Still, it wouldn’t allow as many possibilities as the next approach to ethics that I will examine- The Existentialist Paladin!